Waiting…a different time.

During the hours that I sat in the waiting room for Oncology, I studied dream interpretation. I bought several books on the subject, and while the doctors radiated my mother, I read about symbolism. The waiting room was large, so large that I could sit alone and never worry that anyone would need to sit next to me. I always sat in the section away from the TV and close to the refreshment center. I kept to myself and spoke to no one. I just read until the nurse called me to go out and pull the car around for my mother.

One Thursday, a woman sat next to me, which forced me stop reading and acknowledge her. She smiled and pointed to my book.  “Dream interpretation,” she said. “Sounds neat.”

“It can be,” I said.

We introduced ourselves and began a lengthy conversation on the symbolism of colors and numbers.

After talking for about ten minutes, she told me that she moved her father in with her family so she could take care of him, her husband, and her three kids. Bone cancer. Even now, I still wince at the thought of it. Not as bad as pancreatic, liver, or colon cancers but bad, very hard to treat, usually fatal. He was to the point where he had to wear a neck brace all the time. It was the first time that I was ever thankful for the type of cancer my mother had.

For the next week, she brought her father at the same time I brought my mother, and we talked about dreams and cancer. I feel a bit ashamed that I can’t remember her name, especially since I remember her dreams. They were normal dreams about every day sorts of things with the exception that she was always dragging a heavy black garbage bag. About the time he reached the point where he could no longer care for himself, her father began throwing all his trash down the ravine behind his house. The hillside was strewn with black garbage bags of trash, and this woman and her husband had to clean it all up before they could sell the house. She was angry and burdened, and those feelings made her feel guilty. After talking about it, she felt better and joked that I ought to charge her for my time.

Near the end of that week, her father’s white count was too low for him to receive more treatments. After that, I never saw her again, but one of the nurses, who overheard our conversations, commented to me that I was a sweet girl for talking to her.  Her father’s prognosis was poor, and I had likely eased her guilt about the situation.

Of the meeting, my mother said, “God works in mysterious ways.”

I replied, “Of course He does. If He didn’t, we would all understand everything, and there would be no cancer.”

“You know I believe that everything happens for a reason,” she said.

“Yeah, well, why do you think you got cancer?”

She shrugged. “Maybe to bring you and your father closer together.”

“That’s fucked up,” I said, to which she snapped at me for cursing. “I think you got cancer because you grew up in a city before there was any regulation on what toxins industries to pump into the air, and you went to college in a town where the morning air was so filled with chemicals it was yellow.”

“And I didn’t wear sunscreen like I should,” she added. “Maybe, maybe not. Sometimes things just break.”

So I thought, Even God answers his children’s questions with, “Because.” It’s not an answer at all, so why bother asking?

Predator

He considered himself no different from any other animal that finds joy in toying with its prey before delivering it unto Death. He used only the weapons nature gave him, and he didn’t always eat what he killed. He considered most of it practice, a honing of skills and body.

He watched an episode of Blue Planet that showed a pod of killer whales stalking a blue whale and its pup, taunting the mother, nipping at the babe. When the pup was exhausted, they toyed with the mother until she could no longer defend her offspring. The orcas circled and jabbed, like a pack of boxers, and when they finally separated mother and child, they killed the pup but ate only its cheek meat – the choicest cut, so to speak. After the orcas left, the mother whale swam around the pup for hours, nudging it.

The unspoken questions were obvious. Were the orcas evil? Did the blue whale love her pup?  He knew that such questions had no meaning in nature. He wondered where humans got off thinking they were evil or just or loving. Just because they believed they had souls, because they thought themselves civilized with advanced language skills, they were somehow better and accountable to someone’s notion of moral standards. Ants were civilized, and they sure as hell didn’t have ethics. Mounds often went to war with one another. Yes, he knew it was bullshit.

When he killed, it was because it was in his nature because he was of nature and not bound by a fabricated sense of right and wrong. When he killed his own kind, it was no different than the male dolphin, orangutan, or lion that slaughtered his competitors’ offspring and mated with as many females as possible to increase the odds of leaving a significant genetic footprint amongst the species.  What he did was normal, and those who said differently were kidding themselves.

Dressing

In the barn, the deer hung on something that resembled a sadistic coat hanger.  The ends were sharpened spikes that pierced through the skin between the small bones in the deer’s lower hind legs.  The hook was a loop of metal hung on a fat tack, resembling a small railroad spike, in a beam of the barn.  The deer dangled, spread-eagle, over the vegetable tray from the beer fridge.

He’d killed it only two hours before and field dressed it, so it only smelled of blood and wild animal.  Gamey.  He’d let the dogs in to sniff around, and when he set the body to swinging, the lab licked up the dribbled blood while the rat terrier went berserk.  It leapt at the deer’s face, snapping until it latched onto the tongue.  The dog jerked its head from side-to-side, wrenching the deer’s neck in a blur of motion.

“That’s enough now,” he said to the terrier and herded both dogs outside so he could butcher the deer.  “We start with the saw.”

He lifted a rusted wood saw and put the blade against the silvery-brown fur of the deer.  “Right here, just above what we’ll call his elbow,” he explained as the saw slid through fur and skin, through tendons and ligaments and the joint.  For a moment, he held the lower right front leg by its ankle.  With a casual flick of the wrist, he flung it outside the barn, with the result of excited, shrill barks from the dogs.  He repeated the process on the other front leg.

When he’d made all the use he needed of the saw, he set it aside and picked up the fillet knife.  After poking a small hole in the skin above the shoulder, he slid the knife between meat and skin, being careful to cut off the silver skin as well.  “You gotta get it all.  It’s awful eatin’,” he said.  “Chewy as hell.”

The butchering went in stages – separating skin from meat and meat from bone.  All the while, the steady drip, drip, drip of blood and juices giving rhythm to his work and the twitching of the body as friction countered the knife blade.  When he finished, he had filled a large Tupperware tub with meat, and the deer was now a stripped skeleton with only its head intact.

“It’s not pretty enough to mount,” he complained, grabbing the antlers and staring the deer in its filmy eyes.  “Here,” he gestured to the tub, “take that on up to the house and let the dogs back in for just a minute.  I’ll let ’em play.”

“Yes, sir,” I said, picking up the tub.

I heard the yips of the terrier and deep-chested growls of the lab mix in with his laughter as I crossed the yard to the back door of the house.  In my hands, the meat was still slightly warm.

Tutor

Sitting on the concrete bench in front of the building, I smoked between classes.  I liked the spot, a kind of perch atop the wide stairs that overlooked sidewalks, flowerbeds, oaks planted after the campus burned during the Civil War, and the crosswalk.  Despite a flashing neon yellow sign that read, “Stop for pedestrians,” someone got hit there every semester.  Stupid kids, driving like stupid kids, and hitting other stupid kids like they were squirrels.

I hogged the bench.  I had my feet up, my knees tucked up to my chest.  I liked sitting that way – the way they made us hunker during tornado drills or actual tornados when I was in elementary school.  With my right arm wrapped around my knees, I clasped my left arm just above the elbow.  With methodical timing, I bent my elbow, took a drag, and straightened my arm.  Then, I watched as the smoke wafted out of my gaping mouth or streamed from my nostrils.  I’m a dragon, I thought childishly and smiled at myself.

“Hey,” someone called to me.

Like a Viewmaster, I blinked to switch from what I thought to the real world.  I looked two steps down to find the guy-in-the-Pantera-T-shirt.  He always wore one with faded, black jeans, black Chuck Taylor’s, and three wallet chains.  This day, he wasn’t wearing his dog collar bracelet or armor ring.

“What’s up?” I asked.

He tossed his backpack at the base of the bench and took out his pack of cigarettes.  Since he meant to sit, and I felt polite, I swiveled, letting my feet drop, and sat on the bench normally.  He patted himself, and knowing what he sought, I offered him my lighter, keeping my hand out as a reminder for him to return it.  He did and sat beside me.

“How’re you doing in this class?”  He waved his cigarette at the building.

Simultaneously, we turned our heads and blew smoke over the azaleas instead of in each other’s faces while never breaking eye contact.  I rubbed my cigarette under the bench to put it out, not minding when bits of hot tobacco stung my hand, and set the butt on the bench between us.

“Good,” I said in answer to his question.

“I thought so.  Could you maybe help me?  I mean, I can pay you, some.”

“Yeah, I’m real busy.”  After a glance at my watch, I knew I had time for one more, so I bent sideways to fish out a smoke from the front pocket of my backpack.  Pantera bumped my arm and offered me one of his.

When I took it, he said, “Yeah, I figured, but look, I’m serious.  I have to pass this class.”

I lit the cigarette and took a drag, exhaled and took another, making him stew just a bit.  “How about Saturday?  There isn’t a game.”

He winced.  “I can’t do it then.  My friends and I…we build rockets.”

My eyebrows darted up at that.  “Really?  Like fifth grade science class?”

“Well, not dinky ones.”

“You build rockets,” I mused and thought of the little engines that looked like rolls of coins with tampon strings.  “Do they have parachutes?”

He laughed and looked off into the bushes.  “Yeah, and one weekend, a buddy of mine had his dad down and he helped us make napalm.”

I choked.  “That’s just…not normal.”  Then, I laughed because anyone who spoke to me for more than five minutes knew I wasn’t normal.  “Yeah, okay Pantera-Napalm-Guy.  When are you free?”

We made plans to meet at the library on Thursday afternoon, and when he finished his smoke, I said I’d meet him in class.  I sat a bit longer, wondering how much money the University spent on grounds upkeep.  The azaleas were quite beautiful, cotton candy pink.

When I stood, my bottom was numb from sitting for so long on that hard, concrete bench.  Nintendo butt, my brother called it, like Nintendo thumb.  Except now, there was Sega thumb, X-Box thumb, and Playstation thumb.  I wondered if anyone had ever used a Playstation dual-shock controller as a vibrator.

I pinched my cigarette just above the filter and rolled it between my fingers.  When the hot rock fell out, I scrubbed it across the concrete with my boot and flicked the unburned tobacco free.  I always left that little bit because I hated the taste of burnt filter.

After buying a coffee from the street vendor, I pitched my butts into the trash and headed back in the building to class.

Happy Pawn 1: The Microwave

Jeanette sighed as she put the hamster into the microwave.  She was great at handling kids, but she wasn’t good with pets.  She warned Kevin of this, but he insisted she was the only person he trusted enough to hamster-sit.  Poor Mr. Nibbles never had a chance.

Jeanette pressed the reheat button followed by the preset selection for pizza.  The turntable began its slow spin, and the magnetron hummed.  “All right, you blob of fuzz,” she muttered.

After only two seconds, the hamster’s back legs began to twitch.  By the time the microwave dinged to signal the “food” was ready, the hamster was back on his feet with his tiny nose wiggling.  Jeanette opened the door and removed Mr. Nibbles.

“There.”  She ran her thumb down the rodent’s back.  “No one has to know you were dead but me.”

Jeanette slipped Mr. Nibbles into his cage.  As she watched, the hamster stretched his neck up and suckled at the water bottle.  “Does death make you thirsty?” she asked of him.  “Hmm, maybe it’s the radiation.”

Jeanette moved the cage to the sliver of mattress that passed for her dorm room bed.  Three more hours.  If Mr. Nibbles could make it that long, Kevin’s parents would come get him, and she would be in the clear.

Jeanette sat next to the cage and smirked at the LG microwave.  She agreed that life was good, but maybe the company took their slogan a little too seriously.  Of course, Jeanette didn’t believe that anyone else had a microwave that could reanimate the dead when set to reheat pizza.  So many people ate pizza and reheated pizza that she surely would’ve heard about it by now or at least seen it posted on Facebook. No, Jeanette was certain that she was the only person who owned such a microwave.

The first time she selected reheat pizza and the anchovies gasped, flipped, and flopped right there on the cheese, she puked in her tiny wastebasket and then ran to Happy Pawn.  The old guy who owned the place listened to her ravings with a bland look on his face.  Once she ran out of steam, he said, “All sales are final.  It’s your microwave now.  If there’s something wrong with it, it’s your problem.”  At his shrewd look, Jeanette swallowed down the bile in her throat and asked, “Well, uh, do you have the owner’s manual?”  He did not.

Until fate decided it was time for Mr. Nibbles to go to Hamster Heaven, Jeanette had avoided the reheat pizza setting.  She wrinkled her nose, thinking she used the microwave to nuke a frozen burrito only an hour before using it to resurrect Kevin’s furry friend.  Well, she sanitized it.

The microwave wasn’t the only thing Jeanette purchased from Happy Pawn, but as far as she knew, her portable radio and mini-fridge didn’t have super powers.  They were normal, crappy hand-me-downs.  And that old man…it was almost as if he knew the microwave wasn’t just a microwave.  Jeanette went back to the shop several times, but any time she brought up the microwave, he reminded her of store policy and then ignored her.

Jeanette watched Mr. Nibbles climb onto his wheel and begin a brisk workout.  “Don’t over-do it,” she warned.  “I don’t want to have to put you back in there.”

While she waited for Kevin’s parents to come and reclaim the hamster, Jeanette sat at her desk and reviewed her notes for a History exam.  What kind of professor gives a test the Monday after spring break? thought Jeanette.  The asshole kind, that’s who.

An hour later, Adrian returned, clothes and hair in the usual disarray, more make-up under her eyes than on them.  “Have a good weekend?” Jeanette teased her roommate.

Adrian grumbled something unintelligible and then said, “Can I have something?”

Jeanette waved a hand at the mini-fridge.  “Sure, if you think you can hold anything down.”

Adrian jerked open the fridge, rifled around inside it, and came away with half of a steak sandwich.

“I guess you feel like challenging yourself,” Jeanette said.

Adrian put the sandwich in the microwave and punched a few buttons.  While the sandwich heated, she flopped onto her bed and began the arduous task of removing her boots.  When the microwave dinged, she dragged herself over to it, opened the door, and screamed.

The sandwich belched chunks of white American cheese, green peppers, and reanimated beef.  Adrian screamed again, tripped over her own feet, and sat down hard.

Jeanette swiveled in her chair in time to watch Adrian backpedal away from the microwave.  “Ah hell.  You used ‘reheat pizza.’”

Jeanette stood, intending to put the poor sandwich out of its misery, but Adrian’s adrenaline made her act faster.  She scrambled up from the floor, kicked the microwave door shut, and snatched the machine from the rickety TV cabinet Jeanette used as a pantry.  A wild yank pulled the plug free from the outlet, and with two more steps, Adrian hurled the microwave and its contents out their fourth floor window.

“Holy crap!”  Jeanette dropped her book and hurried over to join Adrian.  “My microwave.”

The girls stood at the window and looked down on the wreckage of plastic and metal.  The sandwich, having been cushioned inside the microwave, survived the fall and now made a last ditch effort to escape.  Adrian gripped Jeanette’s arm as the steak crawled out of the bun and across the concrete sidewalk.

“It’s…it’s alive,” Adrian said.

“Yeah.”

“What should we—”

Abruptly, Adrian stopped speaking, for a crow chose that moment to swoop down and deliver a deathblow to the steak.  The bird cawed twice, skewered some of the meat, and flew up into the oak tree just outside the girls’ window.  It tilted its head and then pecked at its kill.

Adrian groaned.  “I’m going to be sick.”

“Yeah,” Jeanette agreed.

****

The girls did not speak of the microwave or the sandwich.  The next year, they moved to different dorms and got new roommates.  Eventually, Jeanette went back to Happy Pawn and got another crappy hand-me-down microwave – one that barely heated food, much less reanimated it.  The old man never asked what happened to the other microwave, and she never mentioned it to him again.

The year after that, Mr. Nibbles died of old age.

Alive

The summer before I turned 17, my family flew to Vegas.  I glued my face to the window of our rental car all the way from the airport to Bally’s.  I had never seen anything so marvelous and gaudy and utterly sinful.  I fell instantly in love.

I followed my parents from casino to casino, jaw dropped, eyes popped.  I had never been crammed in amongst so many people.  This trip occurred before Vegas tried to make anything family-friendly, so there was nothing much for a sixteen year old to do, legally.  Yet, I was never bored.  I was awed, stupefied, entranced.  The day was one long adrenaline rush, and I shivered from it.

That night, I stood at the picture window of the room I shared with my brother.  I watched the traffic, both foot and vehicular.  Synchronized floods of people in the scorching heat of July.

I wrote poetry about the city, about how the air was so dry that all tires squealed, how someone was always at my father’s elbow with a drink, how the lights of the Flamingo flashed in my brother’s dark, stoned eyes.  I hadn’t felt so alone and yet not alone since New Years in New Orleans, but this was different.  It felt good.

We left Vegas the next morning.

Five nights later, I stood outside a cabin at Grand Canyon Village, stared into the sky, and beheld a near-record meteor shower.  The lights in all the cabins and buildings were off, so it was utterly dark.  I stood there, holding my mother’s hand like the child I no longer believed I was, and I made wishes because that’s what you do when you see shooting stars.

I felt so completely connected with everything around me, even more so than looking over the rim of the canyon and feeling like I could catch a warm updraft in my over-sized T-shirt and hover like the eagles and condors.  I felt like I could fall forever, into the canyon or into the sky.  I felt like I belonged, that even though I was a tiny nothing on a tiny nothing planet, I existed and was loved.  I stood there for over an hour, with my finger pointed at the sky, and cried, and I don’t cry. It wasn’t until I met Fluffy that I felt so utterly alive again.

On the Corner of Main Street

The edge of the gray tub dug into my thigh as I pressed it against the ice machine.  The magnet that held the flap up had broken off, so I had to use one hand to hold the flap while I used the other to paw around in search of the scoop.  The lip around the edge of the tub had crumbled away on all but one side, so I used that side to hold up the tub while the opposite side threatened to saw its way through my jeans.  Finding the scoop, I winced and began chucking ice into the bucket.

“When you get both of them filled, get out the salads and then cut the fruit.  Damn!  I forgot to get tomatoes,” Jean said.

She’d been there since six, baking the bread, and she’d almost forgotten to make more chicken salad.  She absolutely refused to let anyone make it from start to finish – her secret recipe and all that.

“Start the soup in the crock pot, uh, shrimp bisque today, and get the Dutch oven going for the chicken,” she barked as she stomped off into the prep area.

“Yes, ma’am,” I muttered and let the flap fall closed with a snap.

The tubs were a nuisance, all because she didn’t have enough money to buy one of the refrigerated worktables like at Subway or in school lunchrooms.  The restaurant across the street offered to sell her one of theirs cheap, but she her competitive streak wouldn’t allow for that.  No, I had to fill two Rubbermaid tubs with ice and wiggle Rubbermaid containers of chicken, rice, and egg salads, Dijon mustard, mayo, pimento cheese, and four or five other spreadables down into the ice.  I took off the lids and slid serving spoons into each container.

There was no proper kitchen.  The place started out as a wine store, and when it became clear that she couldn’t make do on selling just wine, Jean expanded into a high-end deli/café.  There was an enormous work sink with no hot water (tisk, tisk), and one industrial oven she used for baking bread and cookies.  Instead of a proper range, she had a two-burner portable cook top, which she was now giving the evil eye.

“Why isn’t my pot ready?  You need to get faster at cutting the fruit.”  She set her travel cup down and pried off the lid.  As I dumped a handful of sliced honeydew into a plastic bowl, I looked into her cup.  I gave a smirk.  I liked to imagine that Jean’s travel cup contained something like the “Mother” used to make vinegar only hers was used to make a never-ending Bloody Mary.  If I asked, she would insist it was just tomato juice even as the stinging scent of vodka puffed out and she stuffed a celery stalk and wedge of lemon into the cup, followed by a few grinds of black pepper.  “I have to go get tomatoes.”  She threw her hands in the air.  “It’s always something.”

“It’ll be fine,” I assured her.  “I’ll get the chicken going.”

“You don’t know how much white wine to put in the water,” she reminded me, and bumped me out of her way.  “Go start some cookies.”

“I haven’t finished the fruit.”

“Well after then.  Jesus!”  She loved to say Jesus as a curse word.

The fruit was a touchy subject.  One morning, she’d thrown a fit when she found me tossing out moldy strawberries with a dead fly in the container.  She told me I should’ve cut off the mold and re-washed the berries.  I think if she’d told me to dig them out of the garbage, I would’ve jerked off my apron and quit on the spot.  From then on, I made sure to bury whatever food I threw away under a layer of paper towels.

“And you need to start studying up on wine so you can make informed sales when I’m not here.”

By this point, it was an hour to opening at eleven, and she was crashing.  It was best to just nod and do the other ten billion things she’d asked.  I would get it all done because the situation was never quite as dire as she made it out to be.  I could focus when she wasn’t scurrying around and sniping.

I knew that at 10:30, she would go out for whatever vegetable she conveniently forgot to buy.  Then, she would return with the energy only cocaine can provide and run herd on me and the other two girls working for her off the books.

While the chicken boiled, I retrieved the salad greens and baklava from the cooler.  I got the cookies out of the freezer, put them on pans, and slid them into the oven.  I wrote the special on the chalkboard and swept the black and white tile floor one more time before unlocking the antique doors and flipping the sign around to announce we were open.

I started out on the cash register, but once I showed I had a knack in the “kitchen,” I never worked the register again unless someone bought beer or wine.  I rarely waited tables, even though I wiped them every evening before closing.  I spent my time making sandwiches and salads, chopping more fruit, and keeping the soup from forming an icky skim.  I developed a flare for plating lunches that was both efficient and aesthetically pleasing.  Most of all, I learned that I never, ever wanted to own a café.

When the rush ended at two, Jean would disappear into the bathroom for ten minutes.  Every day, she came out high and ready to head to the gym, and every day, Hannah said, “She’s going to give herself a heart attack.”

The other girls went home at three, leaving me to the deal with the few stragglers that came in for a late lunch or early dinner.  It never failed that just about the time I put everything back in the cooler and mopped the floor, the town sculptor came in for dinner.  He was in his mid-twenties, a gilded prince of a man-boy with a smile to set girls’ hearts a-flutter, and he knew it.

“I’ll try not to get any crumbs on the floor so you don’t have to sweep,” he’d say.  “How is your roommate?”  He always asked.  “Is she still dating that older guy?”

“Yes, although I don’t think you can call it dating,” I said.

He always waited until fifteen minutes to closing to ask for a Red Stripe, and then he’s say, “I guess I’ll have to drink it fast.  Come over to The Pottager sometime.”

I mumbled curses under my breath as I locked the front door behind him and went to get the broom.  I made myself a go-box, grilled chicken with Swiss and a side salad with black olive feta dressing.  After double-checking the lights and the alarm, I locked the back door and walked two blocks to my apartment.  All in all, it wasn’t too bad for $4 an hour, tax-free, plus tips.